Composing a Marriage by Ear

A young couple’s life-work balance strikes a chord

Apr 2, 2013

All musicians worth their salt, since well before the time of J.S.Bach, do it as a matter of course: they improvise. It’s also an essential skill when attempting to launch—and nurture—a career in classical music.

But what do you do when you're not only in the rather early, yet promising, stages of your career but you're also building a marriage?

That’s exactly the challenge facing Naha Greenholtz. In her second year as concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and in her first full season in the same position with the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, Naha is married to Kyle Knox, assistant principal clarinetist of the Milwaukee Symphony who is also working toward establishing himself as a conductor.

Some answers—along with a unique tale of love, long distance and otherwise—unfolded a few weeks ago as Naha and Kyle joined me in a State Street coffeehouse for a dizzying hour down memory lane.

Born in her mother’s native Japan, with a Canadian father, Naha began violin at the age of two and a half. So at least one of her parents had to be musical, right?

“No, my mother was a housewife, my father an English teacher, but I started in the Suzuki method before I was three, because … that’s what most everyone does in Japan!”

Eventually the family settled in Vancouver, and by the time Naha was in high school she was playing competitions and youth orchestras and summer ensembles. “I was pretty sure that playing the violin was how I wanted to spend my life,” she says.

Meanwhile, in Raritan, New Jersey, Kyle had picked up the clarinet in middle school. “My senior year in high school I was enrolled in Juilliard Prep, and I thought, ‘Hey, if I can do this, I can probably make it here after high school.’”

It was friendship—and only friendship—at first sight, when Naha and Kyle first met at a summer program in New York. By the fall of 2003, Naha was a freshman, and Kyle a senior at Juilliard. The following summer they both played in the Spoleto Festival. Whether it was the Italian sun or some vino perhaps, you might say that the relationship evolved from the formal style of Classical camaraderie, to a Romantic tone poem.

And, as it turned out, one strong enough to survive a significant period of long-distance nurturing. “I went to Los Angeles to study, and I worked in a book store to pay the bills and would get home around 11 p.m.—California time,” Kyle recalls. “I’m sure Naha was sleep deprived for months, because I’d call her after I got home, and for her it was after 2 a.m.”

They got considerably closer a couple of years later—at least they were in the same time zone—when Naha took her first job after Juilliard in the Louisiana Philharmonic in New Orleans, and Kyle landed the assistant principal clarinet job in the Milwaukee Symphony, in early 2006. When a section seat opened in the Milwaukee Symphony violins, Naha applied for and won the job.

With the couple at last reunited, the marriage was imminent, right? Almost…

“We moved to Evanston, Illinois, so that Kyle could begin conducting studies at Northwestern University—and I spent about a year at the Cleveland Institute of Music … obviously commuting a lot!” Naha relates.

Still, it wasn’t long before they decided to marry. So what did this musically gifted duo choose for their wedding: hymns, pop songs, a soundtrack?

“We actually didn’t have a traditional wedding at all—we got married at the Milwaukee County Courthouse,” says Kyle. “What a romantic venue—the room you go into is literally called Weddings and Evictions. When you walk in, this rather rough clerk asks you which you are there for, and if you answer ‘wedding’ they smile and are very happy for you. Otherwise, the mood in the room is rather sour.”

With the wedding behind them, life hardly settled down. Kyle took a medical leave from the Milwaukee Symphony and Naha applied for the open concertmaster position in the Madison Symphony. It turned out to be a sort of two-for-one opportunity.

“On one of the concert weekends of my audition process, a representative of the Quad City Symphony happened to be in the audience and asked me if I would also apply for their position,” Naha says.

Based in the Rock Island, Illinois/Davenport, Iowa, area, the group is even older than the Madison Symphony; the centennial of the QCS comes up in 2015. They play six programs to Madison’s eight, and some readers know this part of the story: Naha was named the MSO concertmaster prior to the 201–12 season, and the QCS first chair in January 2012.

So even though this perpetuo moto couple spends more time in Madison than most anywhere else, they still log the miles, together and apart. “There does come a point where if we’re going to live together, there has to be a compromise,” Kyle says. Naha adds with a smile, “You need to develop a new skill set!”

She continues, “I do like to play all over the country, but I only look at situations that are compatible with what I have right now.”

“We love Madison, and if we can build both of our careers here, that would be the ideal situation,” Kyle says.

A question I'd overlooked about the earliest part of their relationship turns out to be a key to where Naha and Kyle are today: Was there a purely musical attraction between them when they first met?

“Not so much,” Kyle answers, “though we do enjoy collaborating as chamber musicians, or as soloist and conductor [as they did last fall with the Middleton Community Orchestra]. Music making is all about trust and openness. It is really great to perform with a person who understands what you are trying to say. The dialogue during a rehearsal between us is very honest and direct. Communication like this is only possible between people who really know and trust each other.”

Ah, but for the moment the collaboration will be a little one-sided: closing the MSO season April 5, 6 and 7, Naha will step out of the concertmaster’s seat and into the soloist’s spotlight in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Kyle will have to be content to rise from his seat in Overture Hall and offer a “brava” or two. Chances are he’ll get a little help in that department.

Greg Hettmansberger covers classical music for Madison Magazine. Find his Classically Speaking column in the Spotlight section of the magazine and read his blog of the same name here

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